Environmental inspections are an important instrument to ensure the implementation and enforcement of European environmental legislation (Recommendation 2001/331/EC). They are essential for an environmental permit and its review. What are the steps of a successful inspection? How to benefit from a digitised Environmental Management System (EMS)?
An environmental inspection provides the organisation with important data to ensure the successful development of a continuous environmental improvement programme, to identify waste management improvement options and ultimately to comply with environmental laws. Hence, environmental inspections can lay out the foundations for a fundamental management tool for an EMS.
Environmental inspections (or environmental audit) is difficult to define as it covers various domains. While there are different definitions, the one proposed by the European Commission will be adopted in this article. The environmental audit is described as a management tool consisting of "systematic, documented, periodic and objective evaluation of the environmental performance of an organisation, management system and processes designed to protect the environment " (EC Regulation No 1221/2009, p.4)
What is an environmental inspection?
Environmental inspection is carried out to check the organisation’s level of compliance with environmental laws and regulations. To control their environmental impact, all investigations are taken into consideration, from on-site visits to data collection and analysis.
It consists of the inspection of compliance with environmental permits. There are different types of environmental inspections depending on the company’s activity. For example, not only the water or air quality around the facility is inspected, but also problems with hazardous waste, waste management, water discharges, etc.
It is usually carried out by representatives of environmental regulatory agencies, after minutious planning and data acquisition at the site.
The 4 major steps of an environmental inspection:
According to the European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law, the Environmental Inspection Cycle (EIC) could be conducted in 7 steps:
Step 1: Planning
- Describing the context:
Setting the context of the inspection plan is essential. It is in this context that the inspection authorities define the scope of the mission according to its objectives and its statutory tasks and competencies. Defining the context is very important to target the risks to be analysed.
- Setting priorities:
Risk assessment is an important step in the preparation for environmental inspection. Priorities are determined by identifying the risks that could result from the various activities and installations of the inspected facility. Then, a risk assessment is established: “high risk, medium risks and low risk”.
- Defining objectives and strategies:
Once the priorities have been set, the objectives of the inspection can be determined. To check whether these objectives can and will be achieved, the output and outcomes should be monitored using performance indicators. Among the objectives, compliance with relevant environmental regulatory requirements is always included. The strategy is considered as the way the objectives are to be achieved.
- Planning and review:
The inspection plan and schedule are defined based on the previous steps. The plan contains detailed information on the objectives, the relevant conditions under which the inspection is to be carried out, the strategies and the objectives. On the other hand, the schedule includes the logistic details about the inspection and the inspector(s) assigned.
Once the inspection has been carried out and based on the monitoring and evaluation of the inspection plan, it can be reviewed and revised.
Step 2: Execution framework
This step sets the structure for the inspection activities. Ensuring that the investigation will be carried out effectively, professionally and consistently is important. Hence, protocols and working instructions are developed.
Step 3: Execution and reporting
The investigation can be effectively performed. Inspection activities intended to verify compliance are carried out. Everything is executed according to the protocols set in the previous steps. The European Union Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law indicates that “all the information of the inspection activities, results and follow-ups should be stored in an accessible database.”
In the end, the inspector(s) issue a report finalising their investigation, in which all the data and previous reports are reviewed and analysed. Furthermore, the issuing of a new permit or the revision of an existing one can be discussed.
Step 4: Performance monitoring
Performance monitoring is mandatory and allows the inspecting authority to check if objectives and targets have been met and to report internally or externally (at national and international levels). Performance indicators provide insight into which tools and strategies work best to ensure compliance and whether the inspection authority is meeting its responsibilities. This step provides the information needed to review the inspection plan and possibly reports for external use.
How can environmental inspections benefit from digital?
The digital solution saves organisations considerable time and improves their management processes system. So, how can inspectors benefit from digital technology?
A digitised Environmental Management System (EMS) will allow the facility to automatically rate its percentage compliance threshold with the requirements of environmental standards and regulations during each environmental inspection. Likewise, the mapping of environmental impacts through the collection and analysis of the data (air, water, soil…) is faster and can be done automatically thanks to connected probes and sensors. This information is essential for setting the emission levels of the facility’s activities and comparing these data to environmental standards. Moreover, access to old reports, working procedures and monitoring data is no longer complicated and time-consuming for both the inspector and the audited facility.
Furthermore, digitised inspection forms could easily be used in the office and field via smartphones and/or tablets. In the field, the inspector can take photos and videos of the inspected site, add comments and insert this information into the inspection forms.
The final BI report can be automatically generated and sent to all parties concerned. Furthermore, it can be accessed by all stakeholders wherever they are at any time.
Therefore, digital technology, with customisable EHSQ software, will allow inspection authorities to easily access a wide range of information, plan and conduct a thorough investigation and generate the final report in no time.